“With a kind of fear,” Helen Keller begins telling the story of her life. She has hesitated to “lift the veil” which has been lain over the story of her childhood, finding it difficult to communicate her earliest memories and impressions. As a grown woman, she finds herself rendering her childhood through the lens of her own present perceptions and ideas, and moreover finds that many of the emotions and memories from her younger years have lost their potency and poignancy. Having communicated all this to her readers, Helen vows to present only the “most interesting and important” episodes from her life over the span of her autobiography.
As Helen looks back on the story of her life thus far in preparation for writing an autobiography, she expresses fear and trepidation that she will not be able to do her own story justice, or that she will bore her readers with the small moments and intricacies of her life. Nevertheless, she sets out to put her story in writing, and to teach her readers about all the hardships she has faced and all of the memories—painful and happy alike—which have made her who she is today.
Helen writes that she was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small town in northern Alabama. On her father’s side, she is descended from Swiss immigrants, and she notes that one of her Swiss ancestors was the very first teacher of the deaf in Zurich, Switzerland, and wrote a book on educating deaf children. Helen notes that though this seems like a coincidence, “there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.”
Helen writes that she is distantly related to Robert E. Lee on her father’s side, and that her father, Arthur H. Keller, was a captain in the Confederate Army. Her mother, Kate Adams, is her father’s second wife, and is many years younger than him. Her mother’s family hails from Massachusetts, but later moved to Arkansas, and her mother’s family, too, fought for the Confederacy during the war.
Helen’s parents are people of means and status, as is revealed in this passage, and this means that they are able to dote upon Helen and provide her with the special things she will need throughout her life. If Helen had been born to a family of lesser means, she likely would not have had the resources necessary to become the accomplished and well-known woman she is in history.
Up until the time of the illness which robbed Helen of her sight and her hearing, she lived in a “tiny house” on her father’s family’s homestead in Tuscumbia. The house was covered with vines, roses, and honeysuckle, and hummingbirds and bees buzzed around the façade all day long. The larger house on the property was called “Ivy Green,” and as a very young child Helen used to visit its gardens to calm herself in moments of sadness or temper.
In this passage, reflecting on the home and gardens of her very early childhood, Helen expresses her love of nature, which has been with her from a very young age. The natural world, throughout the book, symbolizes Helen’s deep sense of connectedness to the world despite the limitations that keep her from seeing and hearing it.
The beginning of her life, Helen writes, was “much like every other little life.” She was an intrepid child and she had an “eager, self-asserting disposition.” She spoke at a very early age, impressing her parents and their friends, but after her illness, she retained the memory of only one word: water.
Helen was just like any other child, and was possessed of a fiery, determined personality which would prove invaluable as she faced the difficult challenges that life would soon present.
The “happy days” of Helen’s early childhood did not last long—they were dashed when one dreary February, Helen was struck by “acute congestion of the stomach and brain.” The doctor attending to her told her parents she would not live, but one morning, Helen’s fever broke. Her family rejoiced, unaware that their daughter would never see or hear again.
Helen’s illness struck her down in the middle of her happy childhood. It was believed that Helen would die, but instead she survived—though it would come to light that the illness had robbed her of two major faculties and would change the course of her life forever.
Helen believes that she still has memories of her illness. She recalls her mother trying to soothe her tenderly; she remembers tossing and turning in agony, and a hot, dry, feeling behind her eyes. All of these memories, though, are fleeting, and she wonders often if they are unreal or constructed. After her illness, Helen grew used to the silence and darkness which enveloped her, and even forgot that things had ever been different—until her teacher came, and “set [her] spirit free.” Despite the darkness in which Helen now found herself, she had caught glimpses of nature during her first nineteen months of life, and because she had seen fields, trees, and flowers even just briefly, she would not forget them.
As Helen wades through her hazy memories of her illness, she wonders whether they are instead merely dreams or invented images. Regardless of whether her memories are real, the pain and fear of the illness is sharp in her mind. Despite all it took from her, the illness could not erase Helen’s earliest memories, which instilled in her an intrepid spirit, a love of nature, and a reverence for her beloved family.